Monday, August 26, 2013

Proper 16 of Series C (Isaiah 66:18-23)

“For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord.” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this morning comes from the Old Testament lesson read a few moments ago from the final chapter of the book of Isaiah. Dear friends in Christ, last weekend, when we visited my in-laws, Bethany’s mother received a phone call. It was an automated call informing us that a prisoner had escaped in Clarinda and was now at large and potentially dangerous. He was a fugitive, an escapee, someone on the run from his captors, trying to flee from the consequences of his crimes. In just a few weeks, we will celebrate another anniversary of 9/11. Over three thousand people died that day, but many in those towers were spared; they were the survivors, the remnant, those who had escaped. In fact, I think we all felt a little like survivors that day; grateful to be alive, but yet wondering, ‘Why was I spared?’ Those of you who have survived a brush with death know that the same mixture of emotions always comes when you are a survivor. In a way, the fugitive from prison is the same as the survivor of a terror attack. They have both escaped, they have both avoided something terrible. Suffering or even death was in store for them, but they were somehow spared.

The same Hebrew word describes both fugitives from prison and survivors of calamity, and in our text for today, that word is used to describe us. We are called survivors. “I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations.” This is a strange word to use for Christians, isn’t it? We are survivors, fugitives, escapees. We have been spared, we have avoided something terrible. What have we survived? God Himself tells us in the opening verse of our text. “For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and see my glory.” God declares that He knows our works and He knows our thoughts. I don’t know about you, but for me, that is absolutely terrifying, because my works and my thoughts are not something that I want anyone to see, much less the holy God of the universe. I lust, I covet, I hate, I refuse honor, I despise worship, I make other gods; my works and my thoughts are not something I’m proud of, and I’m usually pretty good at keeping them quiet. But God knows them all. There is nothing you or I can hide from Him. Our sins may be public, they may be private, but God knows them. In fact, He knows your sins better than you do. And He’s angry. In our Epistle lesson we hear of God’s wrath over sin, revealed at Mount Sinai. The command was given as Israel heard God’s holy Law: “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Death is the result when you disobey the God who created you; eternal death under His righteous wrath. There’s nothing you can do; you cannot hide, you cannot cover up your sins. God knows them all. The God of the universe is a God of wrath over sin, who punishes it forever in hell.

He gathers the nations to tell them that they cannot hide; the wages of sin is death, and it’s no use pretending that we have no sin. We are gathered together under His wrath, and His booming voice declares, “They shall come and see my glory.” The glory of God is a consuming fire, the glory of God is His holiness, His righteousness, His justice. The glory of God can only destroy those who are unholy, unrighteous, unjust, you and me who cannot hide our sin from our Creator. But this will be a completely different revelation of His glory. God proclaims through Isaiah: “They shall come and see my glory, and I will set a sign among them.” God’s glory will shine in a sign, set in the sight of the nations. This is the sign of a new covenant, a sign like the rainbow to Noah, circumcision to Abraham, and the Sabbath to Moses. This is a sign of God’s working in this world, a sign of salvation, as He saved Israel by the sign of blood on their doors. His glory shines forth, His justice, His righteousness, His holiness, from a sign in the midst of the nations, the sign of a man dying upon a cross.

The cross is God’s sign of salvation, the ultimate revelation of His glory. God is glorified when His Son dies upon the cross. His glory shines forth when Jesus Christ, true God and true man, suffers and bleeds and dies at the hands of sinful men, for He suffers and bleeds and dies in place of you and me. Jesus cries out from the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is a cry of unspeakable suffering, this is a cry of abandonment, this is the cry of One who is facing the very wrath of God. The wrath of God over sin, your sin and mine, the wrath that we fully deserved, the very wrath of hell itself, was unleashed upon Jesus. We are the survivors; God’s wrath raged with all of its fury, but in God’s great love for you, it was spent on Jesus. The sign was set among us, the sign of the cross, and it shielded us from the punishment our sins deserved.

It doesn’t look like glory, but God’s glory never shined more clearly than in the darkness of Good Friday. God has glory simply for who He is, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, but He is chiefly glorified for what He has done, for sending His Son to deliver us, to make us survivors of His wrath. He is glorified in saving sinners, He is glorified in showing love to you and me. He demonstrates this three days later by raising Jesus up, victorious over death. His resurrection is the proof that the sign of the cross reconciles you with your God, it demonstrates that a new covenant has been made between Creator and creation, a covenant founded in Christ’s own blood. Christ’s resurrection proves that you have truly survived the wrath of God, it has no claim on you anymore; death itself is defeated. We survived the fury of God’s wrath because He placed the sign of the cross among us on Good Friday. We survived the fury of God’s wrath when we were marked with the sign that shows forth God’s glory in all of its brilliance, baptized into Christ’s death upon the cross.

We stand around that empty tomb, around the baptismal font, around the risen Jesus, a bit dazed. Good Friday and Easter have quite literally changed us. We are no longer children of wrath, we are survivors of wrath. But survivors don’t stay put; they go forth and tell their story, and that is what Jesus sends us to do. “From them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands afar off, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory.” The survivors of God’s wrath, those who have been spared, you and me, are sent forth into the nations. We spread out from the baptismal font into every land, into every vocation, into every nook and cranny of this world, speaking what God would have us say. “They shall declare my glory among the nations.” We, the survivors, declare God’s glory among the nations. The glory of God is shown chiefly in saving sinners, it is demonstrated most importantly in the sign of the cross. In short, the glory of God is Jesus. The sum and substance of our message is therefore Jesus. We reveal Jesus, we make Him known, in fact the Hebrew word used here can also mean “to make conspicuous.” We make Jesus conspicuous in our lives and in our words, so that none of those around us could miss Him. We make no distinctions of persons; all stand under God’s wrath, and so all need to hear of salvation. And we, the survivors, bring the message of our survival to the nations, and then in joy we bring the nations to the Church.

“They shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord.” Christ works through His Word, creating faith in the hearts of sinners, making others survivors of God’s wrath. And the nations are brought to God; they stream in, using any and all forms of transportation, carried into the house of the Lord. The people whom the Holy Spirit calls to faith through our declaration of God’s glory are then offered to the Lord. They are a clean and pure offering, washed as we were in the waters of Holy Baptism. We offer them up before His throne in joy; the people of God no longer bring sacrifices of animals or grain, but we bring to Him people, our neighbors, those who have heard the Gospel, who are now fellow survivors. They are our brothers and sisters in every way, equally survivors with us, no matter what is their nation, language, or race. There is no distinction in the Kingdom of God; all the baptized are survivors: Jew, Gentile, black, white, Hispanic, rich, poor, young and old. All will be brought to the house of the Lord, and there all will celebrate.

The author to the Hebrews describes this celebration in our Epistle lesson: “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” Jesus speaks not of a mountain, but instead of a feast in our Gospel lesson: “People will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God.” This is the feast of the nations, the feast of the survivors, the feast for all the baptized, and it has a place for you and me. This is certain, for God’s sign, Christ’s cross, was set in your midst, and He spared you. God Himself guarantees it in the last verses of our text. “For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the Lord, so shall your offspring and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord.” Your offspring and your name remain, for you are survivors, survivors through the cross of Jesus Christ. In His name, Amen.

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